Winning support for a stronger safety net

Housing benefit in the housing policy world has a reputation for being dry and impenetrable. This is slightly at odds with its public perception, where it is the subject of impassioned debates raging across prime time TV and the front pages. It’s an odd juxtaposition but one that underscores the tension that Shelter has often found itself navigating.

Housing benefit, much like other aspects of the housing safety net, has been subject to intensive reform in recent years. Some of it has been rushed, and much has been bad news for those who need support. We have responded by working with parliamentarians and officials, often behind the scenes, to try and influence the myriad of new legislation and regulations.

The public debate has been far less technical: many now seem to believe that the housing benefit system is bloated, out of control and, worst of all, an unfair “something for nothing” deal. At times it’s felt like every additional £1 for Discretionary Housing Payments, or every grace period from a specific cut, that we and others have secured has been won in spite of public opinion, and not out of the recognition that we all benefit from a functioning safety net.

Recent cuts have undermined the safety net’s ability to support people during tough times and help them back on their feet. This puts many of us at risk, but the cuts have been supported by a majority of the public. At Shelter we are concerned that we cannot win back these protections – let alone build a stronger safety net – unless we grapple with this persistent public hostility.

Today Shelter has published new analysis setting out in more detail the extent of public unease, and our first tentative steps towards responding to it.

Our aim is to put forward a proactive, positive vision of a safety net that better supports all of us when we need it, but will also earn the political support of the public.

We found that the majority of people think the housing safety net is an essential part of a civilised society. People do support the overall principles underpinning the welfare state. These can be seen as fulfilling three distinct roles:

  • The insurance role – providing support for people during short spells of unemployment
  • The dignity role – providing longer term support for people unable to work
  • The compensatory role – smoothing the mismatch between wages and essential costs like housing.

However, the public do not have confidence in the existing system’s ability to efficiently deliver these functions. Many worry some people are unjustifiably receiving support and that the design of the system runs counter to its aims, for example by failing to incentivise people back into work.

This points to a legitimacy crisis at the heart of the social security system. We argue that policy makers need to respond to this by re-stating and building consensus around the basis for entitlement. We need to develop a persuasive narrative of why and on what terms people receive support – and be prepared to accept that welfare will not be seen as legitimate if it falls outside of these parameters.

At the same time we also sound a note of caution over allowing public opinion to dictate the fine detail of policy. The public’s concerns are often nebulous, and are essentially moral responses to perceptions. Attempts to respond to such concerns with specific policy initiatives can go unnoticed. Conversely where reforms are severe enough to be noticeable they risk entrenching public grievances without ever satisfying them; or they can cause unease among the very same people who supported them in the abstract, such as with the growing opposition to the bedroom tax.

Finally we identify a need to distinguish failings in the welfare state from the symptoms of the broader housing crisis. Housing benefit emerges as particularly problematic in this analysis, but it will always be seen as expensive and unfair when it supports an increasingly unaffordable and divided housing market. By fixing the central issue of housing supply we will solve many of the apparent problems with housing benefit.

Over the next year or so Shelter is planning a programme of work to enable us to put forward our own vision for a stronger safety net. The solutions will not be easy and we fully expect that the path to finding them will be contentious. We help three million people a year dealing with poor housing, and it’s clear to us that the current safety net offer is not providing sufficient protection for many of them.  But we also want to put forward a vision that can win more widespread support, that people feel is meaningful to the risks they face and that they are happy for others to rely on when needed.

Read the full report here.